|By Christopher Calnan, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 7, 2005 - The drumbeating for a new convention center in Jacksonville didn't stop when the city's top tourism advocate, Kitty Ratcliffe, left town for New Orleans in October.
Ratcliffe, former president of the Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, led the fight for a new convention center. And her pet issue continues to ring on with the help of the CVB's board.
The CVB says the city needs a new and larger convention center because Jacksonville has outgrown the Prime Osborn Convention Center, a converted railroad terminal. Potential alternatives would be costly, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but giving Jacksonville another revenue source would be worth the investment, CVB officials say.
Meanwhile, Mayor John Peyton has been uninterested in discussing the issue, citing more pressing matters. And the city's Tourist Development Council, which is chaired by the City Council's president, is equally quiet about the topic.
Undaunted, the CVB continues banging the convention drum, however hollow some consider the sound.
Last month, the bureau's board reviewed the results of a privately funded convention center location study that examined eight or nine potential sites. The study won't be released until the CVB makes its final recommendation after the additional months it will take to study all of the options.
"If you know if something is right, you continue to advocate for it," CVB Chairwoman Margo Dundon said. "Times change and it's the hope that the case we make is so convincing that priorities shift and new ideas are embraced."
The Prime Osborn, which opened as a convention center in 1986, has 78,500 square feet of exhibit space. That's not enough, CVB officials say.
They want a center with at least 200,000 square feet of exhibit space to compete with cities like Charlotte, N.C. or Birmingham, Ala., for convention business.
Nationally, plenty of localities look to conventions as a way to revitalize flagging downtowns. But the convention business has been on a downward spiral since 1997 or 1998, said Heywood Sanders, professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Sanders said he spent nine months on a report released in January by The Brookings Institution. Sanders' report, called "Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy", found that attendance at the 200 largest tradeshows are now at 1993 levels.
However, cities are going ahead with plans to build or expand convention centers. Since 1990, convention space increased by more than 50 percent. During the last decade, public spending on convention centers doubled to $2.4 billion annually, according to the report.
Attendance has dropped because tighter security has made air travel more difficult, and teleconferencing improvements have lessened the need for exhibitors, Sanders said.
Also, consolidation of business sectors and the decrease in the number of independently owned retail stores hurt the convention business. Modern-day stores like Wal-Mart, Staples or Home Depot are so influential their buyers don't attend tradeshows, Sanders said.
"They don't have to go to conventions to see new products," he said, "the products come to them."
Dundon said the Sanders report is flawed because it looks at such a short period of time, including the post-Sept. 11 downturn. She also said statistics provided by several industry groups contradict Sanders' findings.
For Example, Smith Travel Research is forecasting a 4 percent increase in demand for U.S. hotel rooms this year, largely because of more meetings and conventions.
"There's a tremendous rebound that's happening right now in the convention and meeting industry," Dundon said.
Former Mayor John Delaney said he's not concerned about the CVB leading the push for a new convention center. But he and Peyton agree there are "competing needs" to be balanced.
"We need to look at it and get a price tag on it," he said. "But I don't know if that's the next big financial investment the city should make. If you're putting $250 million into economic development, is a convention center the place to do it?"
Dundon readily admits that the city's elected officials have yet to determine what role the tourism industry should be playing in Jacksonville.
Mike Weinstein, former executive director of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission, agrees. And the CVB, which clearly has a self interest expanding convention business, has taken the lead, he said.
Without any plan or strategy by elected officials, the CVB's pursuit of and studying sites for a convention center is simply illogical, Weinstein said.
"To me, what level of tourism do we want to attract? That's the crucial question," he said. "I've always thought we were answering the second question before the first."
The nine-member TDC, a public body which includes three City Council members, three hotel owners and three hospitality industry representatives, should determine the proper level of tourism for Jacksonville. The CVB isn't objective enough to make such a determination, Weinstein said.
"What we need is a community-based decision," he said. "There's been a void there that's been filled by the CVB, but it's not going anywhere. We're asking the same questions we asked 10, 15 years ago."
Peyton, through his spokeswoman, Susie Wiles, declined to comment on the convention center matter.
TDC Chairwoman Elaine Brown said city officials are frustrated because the CVB has been unable to come up with a plan everyone agrees on.
"I don't think it would be out of the question for the CVB to make its case to the TDC to get its support and to start building that consensus," Brown said.
Businessman Charles "Bucky" Clarkson, a local developer who opposed construction of the Adam's Mark hotel because it conflicted with his own plans for a downtown hotel near the Prime Osborn, attributed the city's inaction on the convention center matter to poor leadership.
City Council runs the TDC, and the mayor runs Council, Clarkson said.
"The mayor sets the agenda," he said. "Nobody cared about downtown until [former mayor] Jake Godbold did. Nobody cared about the smell in the city until [former mayor] Tommy Hazouri did. It's all about leadership."
Godbold said Delaney offered Ratcliffe $45 million of Better Jacksonville Plan money to expand the Prime Osborn. But Ratcliffe declined the offer in favor of a more ambitious and expensive facility along the St. Johns River, Godbold said.
Ratcliffe couldn't be reached for comment.
Delaney said figures discussed with Ratcliffe ranged from $10 million to $50 million. But in the end, Ratcliffe considered it a waste of money to invest more into the Prime Osborn, Delaney said.
Dundon said the Prime Osborn is large enough for just 5 percent of the conventions in the United States. A new 250,000 square foot facility would increase that figure to nearly 60 percent, putting Jacksonville in the running for much more convention business.
But Sanders said larger convention cities like Orlando are offsetting dropping attendance by going after more of the smaller conventions that would typically come to Jacksonville.
"Jacksonville is by no means out of the woods or free from the larger competitive pressures," he said. "When Orlando is looking for business, they look where they can."
It's pie-in-the-sky dreaming to expect Jacksonville to become a major convention city, Godbold said. Instead, the city should go after middle-size convention business with an expanded Prime Osborn and adjacent hotel.
"I think we're wasting time debating if we should build a new convention center. It's not going to happen," he said. "They can talk about it and be cute with figures. It doesn't work."
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